|“The clawlike appendages that kept the Dalkon Shield in place made removal painful and could perforate the uterus” — Wired Magazine.com. Photo by Jamie Chung; IUD Courtesy of Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum/Case Western Reserve University
The landmark Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, which made most abortions safe and legal, was handed down 40 years ago this week. That same month, I discovered I had gotten pregnant while implanted with the most toxic and dangerous contraceptive device ever put on the market. The Dalkon Shield, in its whirlwind tour of death and destruction, led me to share this fateful anniversary in a way I can never forget.
By Emily Theroux
Last month, I read an unnerving article on RH Reality, a website that champions reproductive health and rights. A young law student who lived with her boyfriend and conscientiously practiced contraception had become pregnant two years after implantation with an intrauterine device. “As effective as tying your tubes,” NW had been assured by the gynecologist who inserted it.
Just as I did at her age, NW took every precaution possible to prevent an unplanned pregnancy while avoiding the risk of blood clots, strokes, cardiovascular disease, and other potential side effects of the birth-control pills she had relied on previously.
(I had also begun taking the pill when I was a virginal 18, riding a Greyhound bus to Planned Parenthood in Rochester from Brockport, the Erie Canal town where I went to college. Once there, I lied about my marital status, after a friend advised me that the clinic only prescribed the pill to married women. I was serious about my education and had no intention of getting “knocked up” during freshman year, at the heady but terrifying dawn of the sexual revolution — when, as vulgar as it sounds in plain English, there were times when you couldn’t be absolutely certain who the father was.)
After an urgent-care clinic confirmed the results of NW’s home pregnancy test, she and her boyfriend, who definitely weren’t ready for marriage, much less an infant, agonized over scheduling an abortion at Planned Parenthood. About her failed ParaGard IUD, NW said:
“It still isn’t clear what I should do about the tiny piece of metal inside me. It seems dangerous now. For so long it was a faithful friend, but now it’s a foreign object lodged next to embryonic cells inside of me — I can’t believe that’s good for anyone. But the urgent care doctor just says call my doctor and take some prenatal vitamins. … My IUD is still there, and I’m pregnant.”
In NW’s case, an OB-GYN removed her IUD a week before the abortion. But back in December 1972, when I unwittingly became pregnant while supposedly “protected” by a similar device — the horrific Dalkon Shield — the doctors told me they left that accursed thing in place throughout a woman’s pregnancy, for fear of miscarriage, which too often resulted anyway.
A Pandora’s box of sepsis, infertility, miscarriage, and death
The Dalkon Shield, an early intrauterine device, would never have been sold if medical devices had been vetted by the FDA at the time. Its fatal design flaws killed at least 18 women between 1971 (when it was introduced by the A.H. Robins Co. and aggressively and fraudulently marketed, despite its manufacturer’s full awareness of serious safety issues) and 1974, when it was finally taken off the market after Robins was swamped by consumer complaints.
Many of the Shield’s 200,000 victims experienced severe pain and bleeding, or suffered perforations in the uterine wall that allowed the device to “migrate” into the abdominal cavity. Others contracted deadly streptococcal infections from its multifilament tailstring, which had a known propensity for “wicking” any pathogenic bacteria that might appear in the vaginal flora into the uterus, which is normally a sterile chamber.
Numerous victims developed pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) after the sepsis spread to their fallopian tubes and ovaries. Most recovered after taking antibiotics, but in rare cases, the infection was so severe that hysterectomy was the only solution. In addition, scar tissue and adhesions left behind by the ravages of PID caused infertility in many Dalkon Shield wearers (and even led to occlusion of the fallopian tubes, which sometimes resulted in life-threatening ectopic pregnancies).
My sweet college friend Alfia contracted a raging infection from the string of her IUD and nearly died during a harrowing two-week hospitalization. Alfie, who grew up in a large Greek/Italian family, was devastated by the prospect that she might never bear a single child. Years later, by some miracle, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, now a young woman herself.
“The greatest danger came when a Dalkon Shield wearer became pregnant,” wrote Russell Mokhiber in 1987. Pregnancy could lead to severe infections, miscarriages, stillbirths, and death.” Some pregnant women suffered spontaneous septic abortions when the device was pulled upward as their wombs expanded. The bacteria attacked the placenta, ending in the death of the fetus and, in some cases, the mother.
Despite the continuing horror, Robins waited until 1980 to recommend that doctors remove the Shield from the wombs of unafflicted women who were still wearing it. The company (which also manufactured popular brands like ChapStick and Robitussin) was nailed with more than 400,000 lawsuits after covering up what had mushroomed into a global women’s health crisis. Robins declared bankruptcy in 1985, and a trust for the victims later paid out almost $3 billion.
The month Roe made abortion legal, I learned I was pregnant
I didn’t find out I was “with child” until January 1973, the same month the Supreme Court decided, in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, that most laws against abortion violated a constitutional right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.
I was 22 and had married way too young. I had also experimented with LSD and other drugs considered “recreational” as well as enlightening in our countercultural campus milieu. I became panicky over the prospect of chromosomal abnormalities that might result from our generation’s willful ingestion of hallucinogens, and tormented by guilt over the amoral predilections of our time. What if we had doomed our own progeny by taking psychedelics?
My first husband and I had been married just two years. None of our friends believed in matrimony then; “shacking up” or living communally were the custom. Surrounded as we were by practitioners of free love, our relationship had become shaky and vulnerable. We had talked about eventually having a baby, but I wasn’t yet convinced it was wise to bring a child into a world that had been poised on the brink of nuclear annihilation since before I was born. (It took my husband six more years — aided by my ticking biological clock — to persuade me to gamble on whether our offspring would make it to adulthood. Our only child, Gabriel, who was joyously welcomed to the planet in September 1979, pulled through just fine.)
That first pregnancy, however, had been different. I hadn’t asked for this, and I was furious with fate. As in NW’s case, my doctor had convinced me of the IUD’s effectiveness. Having to make this decision seemed brutally unfair. I didn’t anticipate or plan for this pregnancy as I later did with my son — recording when I ovulated, eating nutritious food, swearing off wine and caffeine, taking iron and calcium and prenatal vitamins, never smoking a joint or a cigarette, refraining from swallowing so much as an aspirin. Furthermore, I had never been careless with my reproductive cycle, and this was not even supposed to be on the horizon yet.
This is not a celebration, but a beacon for our common future
Anxious and moody, my system deluged by hormones, I fantasized about keeping what might some day develop into a living, breathing human child, if I simply let it be. Most of the time, I could only bear to imagine the baby as a fragile cluster of cells, straining implausibly towards viability. Soon enough, I would make a conscious choice to extinguish its Qi — in Chinese, its life force — like a tiny, flickering candle.
I was positive by then that this hapless child wouldn’t even make it to term — and it turned out I was right to worry. Women who conceived while the Dalkon Shield was implanted suffered a 60 percent miscarriage rate, according to three books cited on Ask.com; many of the pregnancies that weren’t aborted, either naturally or medically, resulted in premature births and severe birth defects, the authors claimed, and I haven’t yet been able to confirm the accuracy of their statistics, if that’s even possible
In retrospect, it may have been some kind of grace or absolution from someone else’s God — a deity I don’t have faith in and will never understand — that I didn’t “choose life” and go through with the pregnancy.
With great chagrin and trepidation, I took what, for me, eventually became the more difficult path, resolving to have an early-term abortion in February 1973, at eight weeks’ gestation. It’s a decision I scrutinize and thrash out in nightsweats to this day, especially on this sobering anniversary.
Nobody’s dancing or clapping here. Forty years ago, for what I deemed with my best judgment at the age of 22 to be good reason, I underwent one of the first legal abortions, in a large city hospital devoid of protesters. I wouldn’t deny that right to any other woman who believes, in the privacy of her own heart where no one else has license to trespass, that she is doing the right thing for her body, her spirit, her family, her moral compass, and her life.
None of us makes such an agonizing decision lightly. No woman that I’ve ever met is “pro-abortion.”
Our consciences come in various shades of gray; mine may sometimes verge on a starless, sooty black, but I don’t wallow there for long. Life calls me back. I have a son, born radiant, healthy, and intact six years later, and a beautiful, kind daughter-in-law. I have two stepchildren, one of whom I talk to long-distance nearly every day, the other turning 24 today. I have three little grandchildren, all under five years old. The babies that I have need a grandmother’s hugs and singing, poems and laughter.
I have good reason now, at the age of 62, to run out and greet the rest of my life, to embrace it with open arms.